Pareto’s principle states that 80% of our results come from 20% of our effort. Today I want to apply this principle to Christian discipleship, primarily the knowledge aspect. When I came to seminary, I planned to learn everything in the Bible so that I could teach everything to others. I figured the Bible is the word of God, given to us by God for a reason, and therefore necessary in all its aspects. It was in Gospels class that my plan was crushed. Dr. Agan pointed out that there is a giant chiastic structure in the middle of Luke’s gospel, running from at least chapter 10 through the beginning of 18. Luke groups the parables in an A B C C’ B’ A’ fashion. For example, the parable of the friend at midnight (11:5-8) pairs with the parable of the persistent widow (18:1-8). These parables relate different aspects of the same central idea and help to interpret one another. I realized that the Bible was much deeper than I had previously thought. It would not be possible to teach people everything, or even to learn everything in the Bible myself.
Learning about personality types was another blow to my plan. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INTJ, which basically means that I am a researcher who gets annoyed with people when they interrupt my learning. It is fairly rare type, say 2% of the population. It turns out that most people don’t want to spend a sizable amount of their free time reading books and taking classes. This isn’t a flaw in their personality that needs to be “corrected”, but the way God designed them to be.
Applying the 80-20 rule is therefore very important. It is simply a fact that teachers cannot teach everything. They have a very small window of opportunity to teach people something. The other day I was listening to Timothy Ferriss describe how to use this principle to become fluent in a language in 2-3 months. He said students often come out of 3 years of language classes without the ability to carry on a basic conversation. What went wrong? In many cases, the teachers spent too much time teaching the finer points, the 80% effort-20% outcome section, when they should have concentrated on the 20% effort-80% outcome section of the language.
The connection with discipleship is obvious. Christians may never become “fluent” if taught inefficiently. Preachers and teachers should spend the limited time they have on high impact material. What are areas that give us a lot of bang for the buck? To be honest I don’t have a list yet as this concept is new to me, but here are some things that seem likely – the Biblical story, the gospel, the great commission, the great commandment, God’s goal for the church and world, our role in the story, God himself. There are obviously others. Teachers need to have a clear idea of the points they must get across, and make sure they are teaching these in a way that has real impact.